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April 20, 2014

Interview: D. J. Perry

If you are at all interested in the independent film scene, then you have run across indie and international film star D.J. Perry. If you haven’t seen him performing, you’ve certainly seen his handiwork as a screenwriter and producer. It doesn’t even matter where you live since Perry’s work is available worldwide and across multiple delivery systems. I was fortunate enough to run across D.J.’s work early in both of our careers. My first exposure to Perry as an actor was one of his first films, In the Woods (1999). Admittedly, the scare-genre picture didn’t have the finesse or stylistic achievements that have dotted Perry’s later productions, but his performance, even early on, was one to note. Honesty of characterization and affect in a micro-budget horror film isn’t something one runs across very often. After viewing, I sat up, took notice and kept track of Perry as his career flourished. It helped that we were both from the same general vicinity in Nordic-like Michigan. Films like Knight Chills (2001), an effective Dungeons & Dragons melding of dark fantasy and modern horror, The 8th Plague (2006), Dean Teaster’s Ghost Town (2007), Deadly Renovations (2010) and many more where Perry performed, produced, wrote or served in a combination of each firmly established him as an in-demand genre actor. I recently had the distinct pleasure of appearing in the upcoming Quiet Dead with Perry and was not only amazed to be in the same film, but to share the screen. 

Horror and sci-fi films are not the only genre that Perry has created. Civil War dramas, like Wicked Spring (2005), Biblical stories like The Book of Ruth (2009) and even TV movies based on classic literature, like The Patchwork Girl of Oz (2009) have all benefitted from Perry’s touch. With that in mind, up and coming filmmakers, actors and creatives of all stripes could benefit greatly from the advice of a man that has firmly established himself as a prolific writer, producer, and performer. So, I took the chance to sit down with D.J. Perry and ask him his thoughts about the filmmaking process.

DCH: What advice do you have for aspiring or established filmmakers in regard to casting?
DJP: As an actor/producer I’m all about working very closely with the director in putting the right cast together. We look for people that will bring that role to life but also is a positive force on set. I like to see people who really appreciate the opportunity. That is why as we’ve grown I’m against friends/family for any small roles if they are not serious about the craft. I know what one small paid opportunity can do for an actor/artist. Evolving actors need those opportunities and while Uncle Sal might enjoy it – it doesn’t help him.

DCH: You are a writer with quite a few produced feature film scripts, more optioned and some even in production. What do you find so appealing about the script?
DJP: I love this process because it is so intimate. It is you, a cup of coffee and your imagination. It is the blue print that keeps all the key artists on the same page. I’ve got real issues with people that shoot without a script or just try to wing it. While that occasional film may buck all the odds and come out strong – most of them do not. I’ve seen people brag about having little or no script and when you see the final film you can tell. I’ve sold and had a handful of my scripts produced. Many of them I’m holding onto as acting vehicles. If they are not vehicles for my career I will look at selling. I just did an option to purchase deal with a studio on a Christmas script of mine. I’m excited to see a group take it and give it their own spin. Right now I’m being paid to write a screenplay for a famous children’s author. The script is an action adventure and it has been so much fun to work on. As I get older, and when I do decide to slow down on physical production, writing is something I can always have.

DCH: Many young filmmakers think that the white walls of their apartments are adequate locations for a film. What advice can you give them?
DJP: Locations are another extremely important aspect of the process. This can be time consuming but not really expensive if you put in the work. I think having unique and beautiful locations that pop on camera is so very important. So invest in an art department because they will help set your film apart from the amateur filmmakers.

DCH: We’ve all heard horror stories about producers dealing with diva actors and hard-working actors dealing with evil producers. How do you handle that?
DJP: As an actor/producer I sit in the middle. I know how absolutely important the talent is to telling the story. I also have zero tolerance for the diva mentality. Save the drama for your momma and put it on the screen. Between action and cut is nowhere near the same time commitment of being on set off camera or off set. So you need someone who views it as work and not just a vacation. There is so much down time between gigs that showing up tired, cranky or hung over is just not acceptable. I’m surprised by how many actors seem to think that is acceptable and cool. To a businessperson or management you don’t see cool. You see that you are paying a wage and getting a less than best effort.

DCH: I would assume that same mentality applies to the crew, too?
DJP: Much of what I talked about with actors can apply to crew. I would say the number one rule to break is to quit. We have a process to address any issues that arise and everyone is important. If you quit on something small do you think you will be given the opportunity on something larger? I’ve been disappointed in a handful of very talented people that just cannot work into our system. The three people standing beyond those folks ,eyeing their job, are very happy when someone self-destructs themselves.

DCH: So, attitude is a large percentage of what we’re dealing with here in indie film.
DJP: Always be a sail and never an anchor when trying to get a project from start to finish. I pay people for creative problem solving. Don’t point out the obvious unless you have a solution to fix or improve upon something. Negativity will get you cast out of our production group quickly. I find it an ugly trait and one that seldom changes in a person.

DCH: I’m sure you’ve heard this before: Mr. Perry! Mr. Perry! How do I finance my film?
DJP: This is by far the most difficult aspect for all filmmakers. You pitch an idea or words on a page and look for investment to bring it to the screen. We have worked with many private investors but are now moving down the line of studio financing. I personally would love to deal more with production and less with finance and distribution. That said, you need to have a good grasp on that process.

DCH: I know that producing is the unsung job of filmmakers. There are no awards for producing, right? What is most important to you as a producer?
DJP: A large part of my business is in managing a production team. We’ve been doing it for quite some time and we take it very serious. I believe in taking care of as much as possible during pre-production. Define those gray areas and it will allow you your full resources to direct at issues you could not plan for. Chain of command and streamlined communication are musts for production. The best art is often created within a well-planned production setting.

DCH: Directors ‘stir the drink’ according to many filmgoers, critics and, well, directors themselves. How do you choose who you hire or work for?
DJP: I always work with producer friendly directors. Production-minded directors work with you and your budget, not against it. If you don’t respect the business I am not the person for you to work with. Also you must be prepared and know your story. A director who shows up without planned shots is like an actor showing up and not knowing their lines. I’ve worked with good directors, bad directors and everything in between. As talent, I always show up ready to take direction or to get no direction. Some are good at working with tech aspects and others with actors. There are those rare ones that are good with both.

DCH: This cuts to the heart of indie film. The industry features projects that are notoriously ‘budget-challenged.’ How do you cut costs?
DJP: Many filmmakers who find themselves attached to a large budget just want to throw money at issues. I’m about saving because somewhere on something you will go over budget and if you have not saved elsewhere that will harm you. If you can bring in sponsorships great but some things you do not want to cut out just on cost. Try cutting out coffee and see what happens!

DCH: This is all great advice. I assume you learned some lessons the hard way?
DJP: I think the hardest lessons lie in people. At first with limited resources and such you often have to put your faith in people. Many artists will be equally passionate and give everything they have. Others will break under the hard work because they were merely enchanted by the idea of being in our business. Our business can often include working twice as hard for half as much. That could even be optimistic as many work without pay on many of their first projects. Who you can trust to follow through? – Whom cannot be trusted when the going gets tough? These are the hardest lessons. It made worse when you are let down by those you sincerely like. That said, be friends if you wish but don’t mingle your work with non-doers.

DCH: The look of the film is pretty important. What is your advice in regard to production value?
DJP: Use the best cameras with the best glass you can afford. Getting great locations and dressing them properly can make such a huge difference in production value. As I said prior, don’t underestimate the value of a good art team.

DCH: The process of distribution and getting people to see your film is generally one that vexes filmmakers. You have an excellent track record. How?
DJP: We are at a blessed place whereas most all our films get distribution. The deal that is made is dependent upon the final product. It is also hard to find honest partners who want to work with you over the long haul. This stage is the killing point for many aspiring artists in our field. Many will only showcase to festival audiences and other than selling a few hundred copies of the film – you have an expensive home movie. Other good films cannot be distributed because someone did not do the proper business and get the releases needed. Many films cannot pass true quality control because of time saving corner cutting in post. Audiences are the final say in how well a film performs but if you can’t get into the game you can’t win.

DCH: This would be a follow up to the distribution question. Just finding a home isn’t a enough, right? How do you get consumers to actually take a chance on it?
DJP: Promoting your film, this starts in preproduction and carries through to each and every release that the film has. I think you want to roll this out officially. By this I mean you don’t want just some hodge-podge social media blitz with no rhyme or reason. You roll it out in phases and focus on various parts of the production that may interest a wider range of demographics.

DCH: OK, so that begs the question: What should one do about screening their film?
DJP: Always try to screen at the best quality possible. We’ve been using test audiences now in our post process and it really does shed some good light upon the film. You can truly get too close sometimes and that can blind you to things.

DCH: Film festivals? I think we feel the same way in that regard.
DJP: Not a big fan of festivals. I find them often to be a waste of time. Valuable resources are wasted patting oneself on the back and partying. I would rather have boardroom meetings to discuss the potential of a project and make the deal. I’ve taken many trips out to Hollywood to do just that. I still have many of those relationships to this day. Festivals do have their place and I’ve even sat on the board of one years ago. I think it is a good place for young hobby filmmakers to cut their teeth.

DCH: Finally, the film is done. It has screened. People have seen it. Now they have opinions. How do you handle reviews?
DJP: I don’t ride the rollercoaster with reviews good or bad. It is nice to read the good ones and I’m astonished and how much time some people put into bad ones. Some individuals obviously build their egos by going against the grain. Everyone loves Iron Man well, this person hated it. Most harsh critics are failed actors or filmmakers and that comes from their words. I thank them all for their time and move on.

DCH: That is an amazing amount of advice, information and inspiration. I thank you! What do you have coming up? Give us the scoop… what’s next?
DJP: I’ve been writing quite a bit this winter while overseeing post production on four features. I’ve written one script going into production this spring. One as a work-for-hire and another that I’ve had upstairs in the mental attic for a few years.  Also working with the CDI Sales team licensing CDI and CDI associated films to networks and foreign countries directly. We just had three in the library release to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Actually the last one Darkest Night that we shot in the Philippines releases on March 28th. In the US it is all over VOD/DVD outlets including Hulu Plus. It was our first international production and first “found footage” movie.  As for new CDI associated films releasing in 2014 – The Terroris, Ashes of Eden, Donors, Bestseller.  I have a few more that I acted in outside our company Division 19, Holiday Miracle and of course Dead Quiet. People who want to stay up on all my doings are invited to follow my blog “Clawing My Way to the Middle” www.djperryblog.comI want to thank you so much for this opportunity to share and give back with a few nuggets of information.

DCH: Definitely our pleasure! Please visit DJ online at any (or all) of the following sites! 

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